AT Shorts: Floating the Floodwaters in a Mortar Box
Sleeping outside on the back seat of a car, living on beans, and floating across the flooded desert in a mortar box—Ben Witt recalls childhood in a household of dust bowl refugees in the thinly-populated Amphi Neighborhood during the 1940s.
VO: Standing at the corner of Stone and Fort Lowell, metro Tucson extends for miles in every direction. But in the mid-1940s, it was a rural area far to the city's northwest. Ben Witt remembers growing up there.
WITT: We lived right there at Fort Lowell and Stone. Our address was 3 West Fort Lowell. It was rural. At first, I have memories we had a cow and, my mother living on the farm [growing up], she was at home with the cow to have the milk for the kids. And then we kept a pig. And we always had chickens.
And there was an existing home that we lived in at first, but my dad would build these little shacks and rent them out to people. But most of them were transient. They'd come in for a while and then go. And you know, it was just a lot of them were people who were dislocated from The Depression and the Dust Bowl years and just all that.
Everyone very poor. A lot of people from Oklahoma, a lot from Arkansas, but he would take on just as many as would stay there at one time, in this little piece of property, which was maybe a 150 foot deep and 200 foot wide. At one time there was as many as 23 kids. Sometimes I would come in the house in the evening, turn the light on, and have to step over bodies to get to where I was going to sleep because relatives would come in. And you know, most everybody was an alcoholic, relatives and not relatives. So there was a lot of alcohol-related problems. That's just the way life was.
We would have usually beans for dinner, beans and cornbread, if the cornbread was available. Work was really scarce back then. This was right after the war. Working class then was people that would go pick cotton when cotton was ready to pick or what they call chop cotton. Back then when they planted the cotton, it wasn't plant spaced out. When the cotton came up, you had to go in there and hoe it out. You'd also go back and chop out the weeds as they came up. And that paid pennies an hour.
In our neighborhood, everybody slept outside. The people that had houses with a sleeping porch on it would sleep outside in their sleeping porch. Once the humidity came, sometimes it was really miserable. But other times, after the rain, you could go out and sleep. For a good number of years, I would get the old backseat of an automobile that was for me to sleep on. That's what I'd sleep on. Some people would drag a mattress, every evening, drag it out and sleep on that.
We knew that we had to get the pots and pans out then because all the roofs leaked. Nothing was done to have the water run off yet, so that wherever the water went is where the water went. And it would be two feet deep at Fort Lowell and Stone, flood the desert, everything north of Fort Lowell. And I remember me and my nephew we would get in one of my dad's mortar boxes. They floated when the-- so we'd get out there and get shovels or whatnot. And we'd go out and float around in the desert. You wanted to make sure you didn't get in that channel, because if you got caught down that channel, you'd end up there at Oracle Road.
VO: To hear the rest of this and other oral histories from the University of Arizona Libraries, visit archivetucson.com.